With Love and Hisses (1927). Laurel, Hardy, and the Archaeology of Kickdownism.
Much is happening in these twenty minutes. It’s not yet a Laurel and Hardy film, but it is a film where Stan and Oliver share a lot of business together. It’s also a movie about “kickdownism” – a little story about hierarchies in which suffering inflicted from above is always sent downwards. In short, this film is a prophetic anticipation of the religious consensus that now dominates much of Europe and North America.
These are reservists who are sent off to camp, part-time soldiers… amateurs if you will. Most of the troops have signed up in order to be forced to spend time away from their wives. Why Stan Laurel has signed up is anybody’s guess. With Love and Hisses is really a triple act in which Captain Finlayson threatens Sgt Hardy who threatens Sgt Laurel.
The film is especially good at enforced intimacy. Army life consists here (and elsewhere) of having to deal with extreme odours and constant renegotiation of minimal space. The home lives of these men must be grim indeed if this military regime offers some relief from it.
And yet although the film involves an escape from womenfolk, the need to look good in front of womenfolk is paramount. Boyish posturing militarism evidences a masculinity that fears women and yet craves their approval at one and the same time. It is just possible that I’m reading a bit too much into the film, mind.
Intriguingly, this two reeler may provide the only nude scene involving Laurel and Hardy ever filmed. But I’ll defer to more expert opinion if other evidence can be presented.
After a hot and dusty forced march, the platoon happen upon a delightful looking shaded creek and strip off for a recreational swim. Stan is meant to be on look out and clothes-guarding duty, but instead peels off and dives in too. Meanwhile, Oliver’s cigarette stub ignites the entire pile of uniforms, reducing every stitch in the platoon’s collective possession to an unwearable pile of ashes within minutes.
The platoon is left naked and afraid in a world of cacti and killer bees. Worse still, clothed women are about to visit. The only shelter for their collective shame is a portable billboard for the recent Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Volga Boatman. By the time the kerfuffle is concluded, the parade ground consists of soldiers with grotesquely swollen bee-stung behinds.
The film offers an early example of an interesting personality trait associated with the “Stan Laurel” character – his complete lack of deference. Despite being, in many instances, an “old world” immigrant – he has no sense of a class system and no notion of a chain of command. He speaks on terms of breezy equality with everybody and reacts to both Oliver Hardy’s and James Finlayson’s authority with a kind of sorrowful disappointment. It’s not that he’s consciously a social rebel. He’s not trying to attack hierarchies – he just has no idea why they’re there. Stan Laurel, here and throughout his career, plays a version of a “wise fool” who sees no reason on earth why you shouldn’t look someone (anyone) straight in the eye and tell them the truth – as you see it.
Which was, apparently, Gary Cooper’s definition of acting.